- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CAIRO — All three judges pulled out of Egypt’s trial of 43 pro-democracy workers, including 16 Americans, according to a court official Tuesday, throwing into question the case that has ripped U.S.-Egypt relations.

The defendants are charged with using illegal foreign funds to foment unrest that has roiled Egypt in the past year.

The pro-democracy groups and the U.S. flatly deny the charges, and U.S. officials have hinted that foreign aid to Egypt is in jeopardy.

Lead Judge Mohammed Shoukry said Tuesday that “the court felt uneasiness” in handling the case, according to the court official. He did not elaborate.

The official said new judges will be assigned to the case. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The trial has proceeded only as far as its opening session, and it would need to be restarted with a new panel of judges.

Coupled with indications that the two countries are trying to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis, it was seen as possible that the trial might be called off at some point.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told two Senate panels Tuesday that the United States and Egypt are “in very intensive discussions about finding a solution.”

“We’ve had a lot of very tough conversations,” she said. “We’re moving toward a resolution.

“It’s important that they know that we are continuing to push them.”

Egyptian lawyer and rights activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam said it was hard to interpret what was behind the resignations.

He said that judges pull out of cases over relationships with defendants or their lawyers. In other cases, especially the political ones, judges might feel pressure and prefer to stay away.

“In general, the main reason is that the judge feels that he cannot act as a real judge, and his rulings would be unfair or influenced,” he said.

The affair began in December, when Egyptian security raided 17 offices of 10 pro-democracy and human-rights groups, confiscating documents and equipment.

It led to charges that the groups have financed protests over the past year with illegally obtained funds and have failed to register with the government as required.

The groups insist their financing is transparent, and all their efforts to register have been stalled by the Egyptian government.

The charges dovetail with constant pronouncements from Egypt’s military rulers that protests against their rule are directed by unnamed, dark foreign forces, a claim ridiculed by Egyptian activists.

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